Protective Measures

How product safety legislation spurred the next big thing in inks.

When the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) was ushered into existence in 2008, the legislation had jurisdiction over just one thing in apparel screen printing: lead limits in screen prints on children’s clothing. And yet, the resulting fallout has been dramatic, changing not only how inks were formulated, but influencing the demands of brands and consumers around the world and creating the next big trend in inks.

The first domino was phthalates restricted by the product safety legislation. Even though their presence in or on children’s clothing was not officially governed by the CPSIA (only child-care articles and toys were), brands and retailers tread carefully. Ink manufacturers read the writing on the wall and three to five years ago, they converted the majority of their plastisol inks in the U.S. to become phthalate free. (Many inks in Europe had already been phthalate free.) A few switched out restricted phthalates for other non-restricted ones; many, including the biggest companies like PolyOne and Rutland, removed them completely in their non-phthalate inks. Despite very subtle variances and an increase in price, printers did not see vastly different results. “By and large, it was pretty seamless,” says Rob Coleman of Nazdar Source One.

The next major step involves PVC, a common plastic to which phthalates are often added to soften. Though not restricted by the CPSIA or any U.S. state, major global brands such as Nike have laid down a mandate that the prints on their garments must be PVC-free. (It is restricted in many parts of Europe.) “Nike has been the big brand driving it, but it goes way, way beyond them now,” says Coleman. He adds that eight of the top 10 fashion retailers in the world have PVC print restrictions in place. The motivations have come from consumer pressure and a goal of big brands to portray a healthy and eco-friendly image. “We’re about 10 years behind Europe [on this],” says Coleman. “Walmart, those guys – it’s a matter of if, not when – will flip the switch and do the same thing.”

That rules out traditional plastisol inks, which contain PVC. The alternatives are traditional waterbase, silicone (ideal for poly and performance wear) and high solids acrylics, a major leap in waterbase that functions more like a plastisol but is essentially a waterbase. PVC-free plastisols are available as well, and while they don’t dry out like acrylics, they carry concerns over wash durability, viscosity stability and crocking.

Screen printers are adapting to PVC-free requirements, but the shift has not been easy. Acrylics are easier to use in many ways compared to traditional waterbase, but lack the open-and-forget-it mindset of plastisol. “Performance of the ink on the press is important to the printers,” says Kevin J. Shikoluk, global director of marketing and technology for specialty inks and polymer systems at PolyOne Corporation. “Many times when you are moving away from plastisol-containing inks, performance on the press – such as cure and drying time – gets sacrificed, which ultimately affects the amount of garments that you get off of the dryer.”

Despite that, PolyOne is very bullish about its Oasis waterbase discharge and high-solid line. Brands are demanding PVC-free inks, and the trickle-down effect is only beginning.